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Breaking down how the Detroit Lions 2021 rookies performed

We examine player-by-player how Detroit’s rookie class performed in Year 1 of the Dan Campbell/Brad Holmes era.

San Francisco 49ers v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Well folks, the 2021 season for the Detroit Lions is officially in the books. And despite the 3-13-1 record they posted, many have touted year one of the Lions rebuild a resounding success.

Yes, winning three games during a season shouldn’t be celebrated in any form or fashion. But starting with their dramatic inaugural victory against the Minnesota Vikings, the Lions finished the year strong, going 3-3 over the last six weeks of the season—3-1 in the games that starting quarterback Jared Goff played in.

A strong finish for a really young team who took plenty of licks during the first half of the season.

Whether it was seventh overall pick Penei Sewell starting on day one, or cornerback Jerry Jacobs being thrust into the action due to a myriad of injuries in the secondary, this coaching staff asked a lot of their young players from the jump.

Let’s take a closer look at how general manager Brad Holmes’ first rookie class performed in 2021.

Penei Sewell, OL

Drafted seventh overall

From the moment his name was announced in April, it was assumed Sewell would immediately start on the offensive line for the Lions. And with veteran left tackle Taylor Decker already in the fold, Sewell began prepping for his rookie year to take place at right tackle.

Then, a few days before the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, Decker was on the injury report, and Sewell was back at left tackle to face off against one of the league’s best edge rushers in San Francisco’s Nick Bosa.

From there, the rookie tackle out of Oregon held down the left tackle position until Decker returned from his injury, with Sewell settling in nicely at right tackle.

Sure, there were bumps and bruises to Sewell’s rookie campaign. He was working through things with his hand placement early on in the year, and having sat out the 2020 college football season, Sewell was understandably rusty at times.

But more often than not, all of the things that made Sewell one of the more lauded tackle prospects in recent memory, consistently flashed on the field.

Dominance at the point of attack. Freaky athleticism that men his size shouldn’t possess. An in-game attitude that led him to confronting quite possibly the most feared man in the NFL.

The best part of Sewell’s game? He is just scratching the tip of the iceberg in terms of his talent, and will turn all of 22 years old this coming October.

The best is yet to come, and that is a great thing for the Lions moving forward.

Levi Onwuzurike, DL

Drafted 41st overall

I think it sometimes gets lost on fans that Onwuzurike also opted out of the 2020 college season. He also dealt with some nagging injuries during the preseason, leaving him with little time to acclimate to the professional game before the regular season arrived and things got real.

The result was inconsistent play from the University of Washington product. Here and there, his powerful hands and twitchy athleticism would be on display, only to disappear for the rest of the game. Not a lot jumps out at you from Onwuzurike’s final stat line: 35 tackles, one sack, two batted balls, and 3.5 run stuffs.

His up and down play made sense when Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell mentioned they considered having Onwuzurike take a medical “redshirt” year.

A full offseason where the young defensive tackle can focus on improving his power, particularly in his lower body, should set him up for a bounce back season in year two.

Alim McNeill, DL

Drafted 72nd overall

McNeill was someone that received quite a bit of hype during training camp, often giving all pro center Frank Ragnow all he could handle during one on ones and live team sessions.

He was drafted to be a disruptive run stuffing force in the middle of defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn’s defense. Someone who can anchor against the run, occupy blocks, and not allow the line of scrimmage to be reset.

Here he is in Week 1, showing plenty of nimbleness to go along with his powerful frame, and low center of gravity.

McNeill finished his rookie campaign with 39 tackles, two sacks, one batted ball, and six stuffs.

As his workload gradually increased over the season, McNeill began to find his groove in the middle of the defense, and has a strong base to build off of heading into year two.

Continuing to be an asset against the run is a must for McNeill. If he were to become a more reliable pocket collapsing presence on passing downs, that would be another major feather in Brad Holmes’ draft cap.

Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB

Drafted 101st overall

Another case of a young player having to ride the week-to-week rollercoaster that was the Detroit Lions 2021 season. Melifonwu entered the season under the assumption that he would be competing and learning, but that his role would largely be in a reserve/special teams capacity. Then starting cornerback Jeff Okudah tore his Achilles in Week 1, forcing Melifonwu into the starting lineup just two games into his rookie season. One week later, he would suffer a serious thigh injury that would force him to the IR where he would miss nine games.

After he had worked through the injury, it seemed as though the coaching staff had plans to bring Melifonwu along gradually. That is, until another starting cornerback, this time Amani Oruwariye, also suffered an injury, once again forcing Melifonwu back into the starting lineup.

The young corner immediately had matchups with the likes of Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf, Atlanta’s Kyle Pitts, and Green Bay’s Davante Adams. And while he had some “Welcome to the NFL” moments, he made some plays of his own. Melifonwu finished the year with 15 tackles, two fumbles recovered, and three pass breakups.

With physical gifts for days and some NFL experience now under his belt, Melifonwu should be right in the middle of the competition for a starting job in 2022.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR

Drafted 112th overall

90 receptions, 912 yards, six total touchdowns. These numbers would likely look a lot different if the Lions offense was even slightly more competent during the first half of the year—a time when they seemed to still be working out how to incorporate St. Brown into the game plan.

Still, pretty solid for being picked 112th overall, right?

Beginning with his game-winning touchdown as time expired against the Minnesota Vikings, St. Brown was on an absolute tear to end his rookie season, becoming the first rookie in NFL history to record eight or more catches in five straight games.

Even as the injury bug continued making its way through the Lions offense, St. Brown still thrived, making plays for an offense that didn’t have many other options to choose from.

He produces, goes about his business in a professional manner, and seems to enjoy the little nuances of being a receiver in the NFL, like blocking in the run game.

I mentioned this several weeks ago, but finding players like St. Brown in the fourth round is exactly how you begin to construct a championship caliber roster.

Derrick Barnes, LB

Drafted 113th overall

Similarly to Onwuzurike, I think this coaching staff always viewed Barnes as a project that was going to take some nurturing before they began to see dividends. You can see the ability is there. Barnes will make the right read and with his acceleration and closing speed, he gets to the ball in a hurry.

The trouble is knowing how to get there. And for someone like Barnes who hasn’t been playing stack linebacker for long, the learning curve is especially steep at the professional level.

More often than not in his rookie year, Barnes would be out of place, leading to major issues for the Lions’ run fits and their ability to slow down an opponent’s rushing attack. Barnes finished with 67 total tackles, two sacks, two pass break ups, and 7.5 stuffs.

With a year of experience and a full NFL offseason ahead of him, I expect Barnes to look more at home in year two.

Jermar Jefferson, RB

Drafted 257th overall

We always knew Jefferson would have a limited role on offense in 2021. The Lions entered the season with running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams firmly entrenched at one and two on the depth chart.

Still, when injuries mounted, the Lions opted to give carries to converted safety Godwin Igwebuike and late-preseason hero Craig Reynolds before Jefferson.

Inactive for the final three games of the season, Jefferson won’t have an easy road to a roster spot in 2022.

Jerry Jacobs, CB

Undrafted

Initially thought to be a long shot to make the final roster, Jacobs found himself playing the majority of the team’s defensive snaps after both Okudah and Melifonwu were lost to injury by Week 3.

As confident as he is physical, Jacobs plays the position as such, right in the face of his opponent. Jacobs finished his rookie season with 34 tackles, one forced fumble, and seven passes broken up.

It was a lot of fun to see him improving on a weekly basis—another testament to coaches Aubrey Pleasant and Aaron Glenn, who really seem to get the most out of their players.

Unfortunately, Jacobs’ season was cut short with an ACL tear. He has since had surgery and I, for one, have no doubts that he will make a quick, and complete recovery.

AJ Parker, CB

Undrafted

Parker’s opportunities this season were another product of the attrition that took place in the Lions secondary. He possesses some nice tools, but his tackling was often an issue, and he was picked on at times in the slot by opponents with favorable matchups.

His play certainly doesn’t warrant writing his name on the final 53-man roster in ink, but he was a steady presence for the Lions at a spot where they needed it.

At the very minimum, Parker earned himself a real chance at making this team in 2022.

Brock Wright, TE

Undrafted

Wright did about as well as one could have hoped for from an undrafted rookie trying to play one of the more nuanced positions in all of football.

The University of Notre Dame product hauled in 12 receptions for 117 yards, and two touchdowns.

Another instance where you don’t necessarily want Wright to be your tight end one, or even tight end two, but he should have a chance at competing for tight end three when August rolls around.

Shane Zylstra, TE

Undrafted

Zylstra was another tight end brought in to try and fill the void left with Hockenson out before a knee injury ended his season prematurely.

Tommy Kraemer, OL

Undrafted

Kraemer spot started at guard while also playing special teams. He’s another UDFA rookie who may have played himself into a good chance at making the 2022 final 53.

Ryan McCollum, OL

Undrafted

A mid-season addition, McCollum spot started at guard and center and also played special teams.

Brady Breeze, S

Undrafted

Breeze became a core special teamer down the stretch for coordinator Dave Fipp. With a safety room that may look very different in 2022 and beyond, Breeze will have as good of a chance as any at one of the reserve safety spots.

Riley Patterson, K

Undrafted

After several weeks of uncertainty at the kicker position, Patterson was the epitome of consistency for the Lions, going 13-of-14 over the final seven weeks of the season.

You’d have to think it’s Patterson’s job to lose in 2022 and beyond.